BOOKS: The Sense of the Possible

BOOKS: The Sense of the Possible - The story of Vodafone's rise is a compelling read, says Charles Dunstone, but there are too few insights into Chris Gent's style and how he made it all happen.

by Charles Dunstone, chief executive of the Carphone Warehouse
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The story of Vodafone's rise is a compelling read, says Charles Dunstone, but there are too few insights into Chris Gent's style and how he made it all happen.

A few pages into this book, I was taken back to the '80s, to Thatcherism and the drive for enterprise. It was during these heady days of privatisation and self-determination that Vodafone was born. It is easy to forget how in less than 20 years mobile phones have changed the world, becoming totally integrated into how we work and live. Anyone now in their teens cannot imagine a world without them.

The story behind Rollercoaster: The Turbulent Life and Times of Vodafone and Chris Gent is fantastic - one of hope, ambition, courage and commitment.

Vodafone was a buccaneer; it took on the establishment - BT's Cellnet - and beat it.

The first part of the book deals with the early years of Vodafone. Sir Gerald Whent and Sir Ernest Harrison are mentioned frequently. Sir Ernest as head of Racal and Gerry (as he was always known) were the original inspiration, and created the foundations that Gent then leveraged into the world's greatest mobile phone company. They understood that entrepreneurs would drive the market, and encouraged new businesses to sell their services rather than pinning their hopes on existing corporate organisations. It was a smart move; they were quicker and more decisive and had more imaginative distribution partners. Vodafone soon overtook Cellnet, a position it was never to relinquish.

One of Vodafone's successes has been the consistency of the top team.

The book doesn't give sufficient credit to Gent's closet team, particularly Julian Horn-Smith and Ken Hydon. Vodafone has always had a strong ethos and a consistent approach, driven in large part, I believe, by this intimate group at the top. It is, at times, described as arrogant; I don't think this is fair. It has been a company with a very clear vision of where it is going. If you wanted to come along, that was fine; if not, don't expect them to wait for you.

I found the book a bit short on facts. Having lived so close to Vodafone for so long, perhaps I had unrealistic expectations, but there are gaps that I or many other people could have filled. There is also not enough about how the business grew to a size that made it possible to go on an aggressive acquisition trail. Instead, the book moves from deal to deal or to Gent's battle to build a new head office. It doesn't address why Vodafone was so successful, or why its customers spent more per month than those of its competitors. It's the operational efficiency of Vodafone that gave it the currency and shareholder support to build the world's largest mobile phone company. If you think you might read about the secrets of Vodafone's success you will be left wanting.

My impression is that the book has been written at quite some distance from Gent. There are few insights into the style and character of the man. It's a shame, because his sense of purpose, pragmatism and good nature are the values that have shaped the personality of the organisation. I would describe him as straightforward, focused and fair, all of which you could say of the company he has led. I am also always struck by his detailed knowledge of his business. It's no exaggeration to say that I have conversations with him in which he exhibits more knowledge about the Carphone Warehouse than the local MDs of some of his competitors.

Although the book is lacking in many areas, it is still a fantastic read.

Largely because the subject is so rich, the rise of Vodafone is an amazing business story. It rekindles the sense of the possible. Quite simply, you can build one of the world's largest corporations in less than 20 years. You need the right market opportunities and some luck, but you also need someone like Gent to make it happen.

I'm sure this will not be the last book on Vodafone and Chris, but it gives the reader an insight into their stunning achievement.

Rollercoaster; By Trevor Merriden; Capstone pounds 18.99; MT Price pounds 14.99.

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